Summer of Riesling and the Taste Makers

Starting on June 21st you will notice that, all of a sudden, a number of restaurants around the country have been transformed into temples of Riesling worship.  Perhaps, you will look at their wines by the glass and you will find it odd that they are offering three or four, or maybe ONLY Riesling for their white wine selections.  Some of you will say, ‘I hate Riesling, it’s so sweet,’ others will say ‘Riesling is not a serious wine,’ or ‘Why do you have so much Riesling by the glass?,’ and that is fine. But in answer to questions like the latter, Sommelier Extraordinaire Paul Greco, owner of Hearth in New York, created the Summer of Riesling in 2008. At first it was only at his own restaurant, but over the years it has expanded  across the country, and it has brought a lot of needed attention to the most noble of noble grape varieties. This year will be the last year of Summer of Riesling, so we will celebrate with even more enthusiasm and zeal.

So, what makes Riesling so special? Let’s take a quick look:

To start, if you were to choose a grape variety that has the most potential to age, what would it be? Cabernet Sauvignon, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese? Good contenders, but Riesling can out-live all of those grapes (in this case we are talking of the very best examples of each variety). In fact the oldest known drinkable German wine is the Schloss Schonborn Johannisberger Riesling from 1735, which resides in the cellars of the winery. If only we could serve that during the summer of Riesling!

What gives Riesling its unique ability to age? ACIDITY and for the very, very long lived Rieslings, acidity and sugar.  The natural high acidity in Riesling is what gives the wine freshness over decades, and in combination with the preservative-rich qualities of sugar can produce wines that can age for centuries.  In fact the acidity in Riesling is so high that many folks, like myself, believe that some residual sugar is necessary to balance the wine and make it harmonious.

Riesling is also one of the most ancient grape varieties, with the first mention of the grape in 1435 near the Rheingau, the region  thought to be the natural home of the grape variety. It went on to conquer the very best vineyards of Germany, and made Germany the location of the most sought after wines of the late nineteenth century.  By the end of the nineteenth century the Rieslings of the Mosel and the Rheingau went for higher prices then the Grand Cru Classe of Bordeaux and the best wines of Burgundy.  Riesling, was rightfully, the most noble grape of the time period, as it still is in reality but no longer in perception.

Today Riesling can be found all over the world. Other classic regions in Europe, outside of Germany, include the Wachau in Austria, Alsace in France, and the Alto-Adige in Italy. In the new world there are amazing examples from the Finger Lakes in New York, the Columbia Valley in Washington State, a few great examples in California, and of course the Clare and Eden Valleys in Australia.  This is just the beginning, Riesling shows its complex and refreshing face in so many different areas that only the future can tell where its limits lie.

So, these are just a few of the fun facts about one of my favorite grapes.  As a first generation American whose family comes from Germany, I view it as my duty to help in the promotion of the wines of Germany, but also to weigh-in on the conversation about Riesling and its place on the American table.  So join us and the number of other restaurants around the country and celebrate the greatness of the most noble of grapes, Riesling!

– Maximilian Kast